Enriching the science training experience requires empathy and compassion
Guest post by Faten Taki.
Leaving work late the other night, I crossed paths with a tearful postdoc colleague. The encounter left a scar in me. I was tired after what was for me a long day. But for her, it was after yet another mandatory four-hour meeting that ended at 10 pm. As she shared her story with me, I could see on her face how she was calculating and anticipating the different consequences of each decision she could make: “What will happen if I tell my boss I can’t make it to regular late night meetings? What will my husband say? How will my kids feel?”
I have been very fortunate to have bosses that are considerate of my personal life and even encouraged me to have a family. But seeing my colleagues go through this tug-of-war has reaffirmed my decisions not to have a family during my graduate and postdoc years. I often feel that our biological reproductive optimum is out of sync with the expectations of academic career culture, pushing many women out of research-intensive roles in academia.
Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about this late night interaction. I was reminded of a TED speaker, Margaret Heffernan, who discussed a study that found that the most successful groups had three characteristics: First, they had high degrees of social sensitivity to each other as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test—a test for empathy. Secondly, they gave equal time to each other. Thirdly, they included more women. With this in mind, I believe we have to actively work towards integrating the skill of social sensitivity into our work setting. It is our duty to promote empowerment and enrichment for trainees in science.
A postdoc position is a temporary training position that prepares you for a career, be it within academia or other sectors. For many postdocs, this period of career and professional development is full of demands on time and energy.
Postdocs often bear enormous stress, thanks to societal and personal pressures to conform to an assortment of unrealistic expectations. In higher education, these pressures are felt strongly by postdocs trying to balance their family and research commitments. Early career scientists feel pressured to dedicate long hours to their job and may find they need to work around the schedule of their mentor—not always an 8-5 schedule. As a result, they are at times thought of as loving their work more than their family. Low wages add additional pressure, as postdocs struggle to establish savings or afford childcare. Often unable to find affordable housing, postdocs move further away from research centers, adding the extra stress of longer commutes. It is quite difficult for those who must find childcare or work around school schedules.
In reality, most hope that the postdoc lifestyle is only a transition; if they work hard they will find a permanent position and things will get better. However, sometimes the experience is so stressful that many postdocs end up leaving their training for good and shifting careers altogether.
Remember that postdocs often feel unable to share their concerns due to fear of negative repercussions. Postdocs lack job security, have little leverage to negotiate, fear that they could be relieved of their position at any time with no questions asked, and often need their mentor’s support to get their next job. For those with families, this pressure is devastating.
If you are a scientist who has not worried about these pressures, you are most likely in the minority. Because of the prevalence of these issues within our community, it is important that we all have empathy for one another. We should be conscious of how our peers manage not only their day, but the pressures to find childcare at the last minute for an unanticipated meeting or an experiment that runs long. Before scheduling meetings after normal business hours, consider the potential impact and stress on many postdocs as they struggle to juggle work and life responsibilities.
Anecdotal stories from postdocs suggest that many colleagues are not empathetic to their situation. Postdocs perceive little consideration for their time or daily responsibilities and often feel invisible and lonely. It saddens me to say that the escalation of such burdens have cost my community the lives of several talented trainees by suicide. Something has to change.
It is important to stress that we are not asking for special treatment, lower expectations, or reduced productivity. Postdocs strive for self-fulfillment and to be good scientists. Many of us have left our native communities and travelled abroad for the opportunity to conduct scientific research. Postdocs are dedicated. And small changes like holding one-on-one meetings and work-related discussions within standard 8-5 business hours, as well as small acts of kindness like simply noticing each other’s well being, will reduce the stress and keep everyone motivated and excited about their work. It will also increase their focus, allowing them to become more productive.
“If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live… What people need is social support… What motivates people are the bonds and loyalty and trust they develop between each other. What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.”
About the author:
Faten Taki is a Liasion for the Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee and a postdoctoral associate at Weill Cornell Medical College. Her goal is to be able to give back to the scientific community while still growing as an early career scientist.